When the Rafah border wall separating Egypt and Gaza crumbled last week, so did the rules of the diplomatic game between Israel, the Palestinian Authority, Hamas and Egypt, which now finds itself the unwilling partner of a group it wants to cripple and whose violent actions against Israel it will be expected to prevent.
As thousands of Gazans surged into Egypt following Hamas’s destruction of a portion of the border wall, the Egyptian government was thrust into a difficult position: allow the crossing of tens of thousands of Palestinians into Sinai, thereby abandoning its policy to isolate Hamas, or forcibly suppress their Arab compatriots escaping the much-publicized misery of Gaza. With the Egyptian security forces heavily outnumbered, and the eyes of the Arab world firmly fixed on Rafah, the Egyptians had no choice but to allow the Gazans to cross the border freely. As they did, the strategic balance shifted, reinvigorating Hamas’s power and limiting the prospects for isolating Gaza under its rule.
While the decision to allow unimpeded access into Sinai for Gazans was not preceded by any serious debate, it established a precedent that could come to redefine the fundamental relationship between Egypt, Hamas, and the Palestinians of Gaza. It also further complicates Egypt’s relations with Israel.
At first, the Egyptian authorities attempted to repair the wall and reseal the border. In order to send a clear signal that it had final say over when and if the border would be resealed, Hamas promptly bulldozed another section of the barrier, forcing the Egyptian security forces to decide again whether they would forcibly repress the entrance of unarmed civilians. Order—of a sort—was eventually restored, but only as a result of the decision by Hamas to cooperate in asserting control of the border.
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s inaction came in for harsh criticism from some quarters in Israel and the United States. Yet, if the Egyptian government had chosen to push back the hundreds of thousands who made their way to Rafah, the Egyptian security forces would have been forced to confront the human flood entering Sinai from Gaza, likely resulting in the use of deadly force.
Such a precipitous action would have aroused even greater anger in Egypt, where recent street demonstrations organized by the Muslim Brotherhood, the main political opposition within Egypt, have bluntly denounced the Egyptian government for its perceived collusion with Israel in enabling a policy of collective punishment.
The Mubarak regime felt such concern over the impact of their border policy on domestic politics that it detained hundreds of opposition figures affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, hoping to suppress planned demonstrations against the closure. Its concerns were further amplified due to the close relations enjoyed by the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, an ideological offshoot of the Egyptian movement, and the prospect of cooperation between the two groups.
With the specter of future Hamas-orchestrated incursions looming over Egyptian-Gazan relations, Egypt’s preferred approach of isolating Hamas through enforced closure of the border is no longer a viable policy option. Additionally, the opening to Egypt has revived discussion among certain Israeli commentators and strategists of total Israeli separation from Gaza. While the severing of all links by the Israelis is not technically feasible due to the infrastructure and capacity limitations on the Egyptian side of the border, the prospect of Egypt serving as Gaza’s guarantor will unnerve Cairo, which is already severely burdened as a result of its own stagnating economy and high levels of unemployment.
A more open border would also heighten Cairo’s security concerns about the disaffected Bedouin population in Sinai amid fear of operational contacts between Gazan militants and Bedouin extremists who have been implicated in a string of major terrorist operations that have targeted tourist sites on the Red Sea coast, a significant industry for the Egyptian economy.
In light of recent U.S. displeasure with Egyptian efforts to police smuggling into Gaza through underground tunnels, Egyptians are especially troubled that future Palestinian violence against Israel will strain relations with the United States. If such attacks take place, it is likely that Egypt will be held partially accountable for such actions as a result of a greater opening with Gaza.
At the same time, it is not in Hamas’s interest to overplay its hand. The burgeoning resentment of the Egyptian Bedouin population at the escalating prices and dwindling supplies in the Rafah area indicate that an unchecked border could produce a local backlash that undercuts popular sympathy for the people of Gaza. Similarly, if Gazan militants or criminal elements create chaos in the border area, they will jeopardize the powerful current of sympathy in the Arab world that effectively constrains the Egyptian regime from forcibly counteracting future breaches.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, while acknowledging the difficulty of the situation, emphasized the Egyptians’ obligation to respect and protect the international border, adding that she believes that “the Egyptians understand the importance of doing that.” Unmentioned in Rice’s statement is the stark reality currently facing the Egyptians, namely, that Egypt cannot stabilize the border without the active and constructive cooperation of Hamas. The events that led to the stabilizing of the border have cast Hamas in the role of an official counterpart to the Egyptian authorities, much to the chagrin of Mahmoud Abbas and his Fatah supporters. Meanwhile, Egypt’s, Israel’s, and Fatah’s greatest point of leverage—the ability to undermine Hamas’s grip on power through a blockade of Gaza—is now irreparably damaged.
President Mubarak announced last Friday that he had invited the newly empowered leaders of Hamas to come to Cairo to meet their Fatah counterparts. The invitation and the reversal of Egyptian policy emphasize the failure of the attempts to isolate Hamas. It is becoming increasingly clear that there is no alternative to serious diplomatic engagement aimed at brokering a political reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah and pursuing a ceasefire agreement between Hamas and Israel, however unpalatable that may be for the Egyptians, the Palestinian Authority, Israel, or the United States.
There are no assurances that such a diplomatic process will lead to agreement among all the parties. In fact, the shifting power dynamics make it less likely that either Hamas or Fatah will be willing to make the compromises necessary to bring about any sort of reconciliation at this time. However, initiating a diplomatic process and opening channels of communication will establish a framework for dealing with future crises and negotiating a sustainable political arrangement.
It should also be clear that establishing contacts with Hamas does not in any sense condone their tactics or absolve them of responsibility for past actions. Ephraim Halevy, the former head of Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency, has described Hamas as a “ghastly crowd,” but nonetheless has advocated talking to Hamas because they cannot be defeated politically and they exercise effective control over Gaza.
With U.S. policymakers ideologically resistant to dealing with Hamas on any level, and with the recent release of the final report of the Winograd Committee essentially limiting the current Israeli government’s flexibility, major policy shifts with respect to Hamas are not likely to occur. However, it should be clear that the dramatic events in Gaza coupled with the lack of any tangible progress on the ground resulting from the peace process have ensured that engagement, when it does occur, will be with a strengthened Hamas whose hold on Gaza is secure for the foreseeable future.